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Hermann Hesse's Gertrud : Overcoming Despair

Dernière mise à jour : 8 avr. 2023

"As early as 1903, Hesse wrote,

“I confess that more and more I hold the eternal accusation against 'our skeptical and corrupt time' as false... I do not view the great sensitivity and the general nervousness as decadence, but rather these are only the unfortunate consequence of our rapidly changing forms of life... And I believe it to be false that the uncertainty that I and others have can be blamed on ‘our bad time.’”

The author did not believe that society was degenerating, but realized that the world was progressing at an unprecedented rate, due to industrial processes that had drastically altered life. Since Hesse did not blame his era, the responsibility for these perceived troubles had to fall elsewhere. While Hesse acknowledged the prevalence of pessimistic trends in society, he argued that such ideas could be overcome by individual choice. Hesse encouraged the individual to move beyond pessimism and to embrace life rather than give in to despair.

A year before the publication of Rosshalde, Hesse offered simple advice based on his own personal experience:

“Besides, I have entirely outgrown the pessimistic worldview. I love the world and life, and I can find pleasure in pain.”

According to Hesse, a love of life that embraced both the good and the bad became a way of overcoming despair, since life is a balance of contrary forces.

Hesse’s third novel, Gertrude, written at Gaienhofen in 1910, was his first attempt at comprehending this situation.

It is a story of a young musician named Kuhn who leaves home and goes to the capital to study music, specifically the violin. While at the music school, Kuhn cripples his leg in a tobogganing accident. At first, this injury disturbs Kuhn, since he feels that his childhood has been cut short. After a while, however, he adjusts to his handicap and travels to Switzerland to enjoy its natural beauty. Returning to the music school for his last semester, Kuhn befriends an opera singer named Heinrich Muoth.

The two friends contrast each other as Muoth is an extrovert, while Kuhn is an introvert. Muoth, however, expands Kuhn’s world by pushing him into society. But after graduation, Kuhn returns to his ordinary village. Nothing touches Kuhn’s heart during his ten months home except visions of creating a great symphony or an opera.

While at home, Kuhn begins to receive mysterious checks, which turn out to be from Muoth, who has been publicly performing songs to the violinist’s compositions. Kuhn realizes his potential career as a musician, so he returns to Munich. In the city, Muoth helps Kuhn obtain a position as second violinist at an opera house. Soon, Kuhn becomes a well-regarded violinist and minor composer. Because of this he is invited to play at a merchant’s house, where he becomes a frequent guest. It is here that Kuhn meets and falls in love with Gertrude.

In order to spend more time with Gertrude, Kuhn commences work on an opera with her.

Even though Kuhn loves Gertrude, she only sees him as a friend. The opera remains their secret for a time, but soon others need to be involved. Muoth is the first person Kuhn asks to join in the creation of the opera. One day, while visiting Muoth, Kuhn notices a letter with Gertrude’s handwriting on the singer’s desk. Immediately Kuhn understands that the two are a couple. After this discovery, Kuhn plans to kill himself, but before he has a chance, he receives a telegram informing him of his father’s impending death. Because of his father’s death, Kuhn remains home to care for his mother, but their time together is strained and unpleasant.

During this period, Kuhn finishes his opera. He then returns to Munich and begins to reconnect with his musician friends, while putting the final touches on the composition. Work on the opera reunites Gertrude, Muoth, and Kuhn, but the composer must deal with Gertrude and Muoth’s marriage, which naturally upsets him. The opera, however, becomes a resounding success.

Yet, shortly after this accomplishment, Muoth and Gertrude’s marriage collapses and the three friends part ways. Weeks later, Kuhn receives a telegram from Muoth and finds the singer in a miserable and alcoholic state because of his separation from Gertrude. After a sentimental night of drinking with Kuhn, Muoth commits suicide.

That Gertrude is a novel about music is undeniable. Music occupied a particularly important place in Hesse’s life and was a vital part of his artistic creation. Biographer Joseph Mileck notes that life without music was unthinkable for Hesse. In Theodore Ziolkowski’s

analysis, music was a symbol of totality and harmony for the author. And it was, indeed. As a young man, Hesse bought a violin, as an instrument of introspection and meditation, even though he only played occasionally.

He also appreciated classical music, especially Chopin, whose music Hesse thought was warm, spiritual, and harmonious. In a letter written three years after Gertrude, Hesse confirmed music’s great appeal:

“My relationship with music is like you would expect, an immediacy. I do not make music myself, except that I often sing or whistle. But I need music constantly, and it is the sole art form that I unconditionally admire and take as absolutely indispensable...”

Hesse projected his own love for music into the novel, and into Kuhn, specifically. Kuhn views music similarly to Hesse, as its melodies bring harmony and peace. The violinist comments, “when playing all prejudices vanished; music drew us together and we were of one mind,” and when “I was playing, I felt happy and at peace.”

Through music Kuhn can express his innermost self and escape social pains. Additionally, where Hesse acknowledged that natural religion can be found in nature in Peter Camenzind, in Gertrude he attached this romantic idea to music:

“the shortest song and most simple piece of music preach that heaven is revealed in the purity, harmony and interplay of clearly sounded notes.”

According to Hesse, order and harmony exists in the world, but we must train ourselves to find them, as we do with music.

But just like Peter Camenzind, which can be read as a nature novel masquerading as a friendship story, Gertrude too can be seen as a piece of literature warning against cultural pessimism masked in a music novel. Even though Gertrude garnered little success, the hints of cultural pessimism make it a prescient work for this theme on the eve of the Great War. Hesse even commented that Gertrude did not deal with a great subject but it was a psychological novel. In this book, Hesse hoped

“to probe the balance between love of the world and flight from the world, on the one hand, and between satisfaction and thirst, on the other.”

Gertrude confronts the problem of overcoming pessimism and degeneration, as revealed by Kuhn, or giving into it, like Muoth, which leads to an untimely death.


Despite acknowledging degeneration within the novel, Hesse did not to succumb to pessimism and despair, like many of his contemporaries. While Hesse recognized that ideas of degeneration existed during this period, he warned the reader not to yield to despair. After Kuhn’s father dies, the young man converses with a former teacher, Lohe. Kuhn tells Lohe that everything seems meaningless and stupid, and Lohe determines that the young man is mentally sick. The former teacher pronounces,

"you are suffering from a sickness, one that is fashionable, unfortunately, and that one comes across every day among sensitive people. It is related to moral insanity and can also be called individualism or imaginary loneliness. Modern books are full of it. It has insinuated itself into your imagination; you are isolated; no one trouble about you and no one understands you. Am I right ?... if this sickness were general, the human race would die out, but it is only found among the upper classes in Central Europe. It can be cured in young people and it is, indeed, part of the inevitable period of development."

To overcome these roots of despair, Lohe suggests that Kuhn think about others more than about himself and to learn to love someone more than his own self. Kuhn’s father offers similar advice as the teacher, recommending that by moving beyond egoism, Kuhn can begin to find meaning in the world. Kuhn decides to try to live like this because it does not offer philosophy or opinions but rather a practical attempt to make an unhappy life tolerable.

Kuhn slowly overcomes his melancholy as he moves away from egoism, beginning with the death of his father. He understands that he must live to help others and that succumbing to hopelessness only brings despair. In contrast, Muoth does not adopt such a practice, even though Kuhn recognizes that Muoth suffers from this illness more than anyone else. Instead, Muoth continues on his egotistic path and wallows in his illness until it leads him to an alcoholic and suicidal finale.

One fascinating aspect of the book in regards to cultural pessimism centers on Hesse’s treatment of Nietzsche. Gertrude can be considered Hesse’s first serious attempt at bringing many Nietzschean elements into his writing. Hesse recognized the cult of Nietzsche developing in his day, and found it “sad and ridiculous... How few understand him, how gloomy and pitiful they seem in comparison to him...”

Yet, Hesse acknowledged that Nietzsche presented a difficult undertaking for readers and called reading the famous philosopher’s works “a stimulating, but difficult task.”

Nevertheless, while most people misunderstood Nietzsche as a prophet of doom and gloom, Hesse identified the life-affirming stance of Nietzsche. In Gertrude, Hesse draws heavily from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, juxtaposing Apollonian and Dionysian elements as represented by the characters of Kuhn and Muoth. On the two

friends, Kuhn remarks,

“he was a man of the theater and an adventurer, I thought, and he was perhaps destined to live a tragic and public life. On the contrary, I wanted a quiet life.”

Joy in life, however, comes from a balance of these two instincts. Both Kuhn and Muoth benefited from their friendship because it allowed Apollonian and Dionysian individuals to converge and help each other grow. Hesse implied this through the unity and music produced by the pair when together. In connection, there is the idea that everything originates from the same source and that one must look beyond binaries.

Nietzsche argued that everything emanates from the lap of being, and that all should be embraced. Since Hesse believed that “without sorrow, deep and heartfelt experience was not possible,” he projected the balance of pain and pleasure into Kuhn’s life. The violinist remarks,

“I don’t want to thrust aside and be rid of anything but weakness and constriction. I want to feel that pleasure and pain arise from the same source, that they are aspects of the same force and portions of the same piece of music, each beautiful and each essential.”

Finally, there is a Nietzschean desire to create in the novel. Often Nietzsche’s Übermensch is regarded as an ominous figure, who moves beyond the bounds of society, but a real Übermensch is someone who overcomes himself and is able to give something to the world, often through creation.

Even after Kuhn becomes crippled, he is joyful that he “would compose again !” and is overcome by an “intense desire to make music, to create.” Muoth even remarks to Kuhn,

“you are a composer, a creator, a little god !”

In the end, Kuhn overcomes his handicap and the degenerative qualities others place on him, because of his creation for the world, his opera. In Gertrude, Hesse offered an alternative view of Nietzsche that went beyond the bounds of nationalism and cultural despair. Nietzsche and Hesse, despite some apparent darkness and despair in their writings, both affirmed life.

Through physical and mental degeneration, abusive relationships, and suicide, Hesse cautioned the reader of the dangers of pessimism, degeneration, and despair. Two final lines from the novel reinforce this notion. First, Kuhn is asked if his handicap made him despondent and if music really makes it better. He responds,

“it [his leg] does not please me, you can be sure of that, but I hope it will never bring me to despair.”

Second, Kuhn knows that despair will only lead down a dark path. Later in the novel Kuhn adds, fate was not kind, life was capricious and terrible, and there was no good or reason in nature. But there is good and reason in us, in human beings, with whom fortune plays, and we can be stronger than nature and fate, if only for a few hours... We cannot evade life’s course, but we can school ourselves to be superior to fortune and also to look unflinchingly upon the most painful things. Kuhn understands that to overcome such a sickness is strength, even if it is fleeting.

In true Nietzschean fashion, one must embrace both the pleasure and the pain. Like his character, Hesse was displeased with the current atmosphere surrounding German life and society, but he did not despair, because to do so would be to lose touch with reality and to lose hope for a better future. Instead, one should embrace the pain and pleasure, realizing that both come from the same source. In the end, perhaps, Hesse achieved his goal.

Gertrude was not his best story, but it was a psychological novel, which offers keen insights into Hesse’s reaction to this fin de siècle illness. Rather than fall into the trap of cultural pessimism infiltrating circles of German society, Gertrude warned against extremes and the pitfalls of despair."

* * *

Source :

"The Lonely Romantic": Nature, Education, and Cultural Pessimism in the Early Works of Hermann Hesse, by Erik Paul Wagner

"The Lonely Romantic": Nature, Education
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